Late October weekends – always special for my mum – get more meaningful with the arrival of every spring jasmine.
Wearied by time, my mum’s body seems to pick up a new ailment with every passing year. This winter, osteoarthritis arrived in her left knee without warning, leaving her quietly, if prematurely, certain her daily walks along the Cooks River were coming to an end.
We warn her to go easy, to leave the big family cook-ups to her children. Of course, she refuses. And though she doesn’t say it, we know she fears each opportunity could be her last.
Last weekend was the first warah 3anab – rolled vine leaves – of the season. Most of the leaves used in this traditional Levant dish come from her own grapevine, one that has provided many a spring family dinner.
Dinners that go back to the years we all lived at home. Before the weddings and grandkids, the estrangements and reconciliations. Back to before we lost our oldest and youngest (if my father’s death took us by surprise, then my little brother’s is a shock that will always reverberate through the generations lucky enough to know him).
Though she doesn’t say it, we know she fears each opportunity could be her last.
We are many more now; sisters and brothers-in-law, grandkids and great-grandkids, and the leaves from that single vine, proud as it is, cannot sustain us all. So my mother’s vine is supplemented with those she helped plant in the yards of her children and grandchildren. Though the leaves may come from suburbs all over Sydney, the first warah 3anab of the season are always prepared and eaten at my mother’s house.
Growing up, vine leaves were at once my most loved and despised Arab meal. The lemon juice and slightly sour green leaf handily disguised the meat I was already uncomfortable eating, and I liked how we implicitly understood this was a special meal, not only because it heralded the definitive arrival of spring, but – and this is the bit I despised – because it took two days to prepare.
To the proud Lebanese and Syrian home cook, the smaller the leaf and tighter the roll, the better.
The vine leaves or dolmades you get in restaurants - thick, chunky, and loosely stuffed with rice - are not like the ones we cook at home. To the proud Lebanese and Syrian home cook, the smaller the leaf and tighter the roll, the better.
Of course, this means it takes so much longer. With seven children to feed, rolling vine leaves took up almost an entire Saturday’s worth of sunlight for me, my sisters and my mother; unbearable for a young girl who preferred to be playing six and out with her brothers.
To my young eyes, the huge mound of seasoned lamb mince and white rice we were to painstakingly roll into thousands of slender, pinky-sized fingers looked impenetrable, and though it would provide a feast the next day, I was never convinced it was worth the bother.
But as with so many things time changes, so has it shifted my perspective on this. We don’t know how much longer this tradition will survive in this country; two days of preparation is a luxury not many can afford, so we savour it while we can. Only now, we make two pots – the usual lamb plus a vegan batch thanks to our growing ranks – and now my sisters-in-law join us as we gather again for another Saturday of rolling and reminiscing.
All my family memories were forged in this country, mostly in this house, but my sisters were fortunate enough to import a few from the old one. And as we went to work rolling, they effortlessly recalled the Arabic songs on my father’s cherished cassettes that he’d play until the tape became as warbled as his conviction he did the right thing bringing us here.
There are generations of women in these rolled leaves ... whose lives were given over to cooking and cleaning and bringing up children.
One of the few I am old enough to remember was Lebanese crooner Azar Habib’s 80s favourite, Saydali ya Saydali, where he begs a pharmacist for a magic pill to unite him and his love forever, “We came here so you could heal us. They guided us to you, so be kind to us…”
“Forty years,” a bewildered sister noted, “Forty years since we first heard some of those songs.”
The fear and uncertainty of impending old age is coming for us all and like centuries of women before us, as the piles of rolled vine leaves grew larger before us, we wondered about the years that have gone and what the dwindling ones have in store.
There are generations of women in these rolled leaves, living and dead, women whose lives were given over to cooking and cleaning and bringing up children. How many rolled but longed for something more? How many had no concept of anything else? How many would do it all the same again while others would give a lifetime for a moment of something different?
Every spring brings fresh pain as well as new life; this year it was the fall suffered by an elderly family friend. As a young girl in Lebanon she was known as a mischief-maker, and one of her tricks was to abscond with one half of every pair of men’s shoes from outside the prayer hall. From her hiding spot she would giggle to herself as they pretended to search for their missing sandals. Did she know they were feigning annoyance to make her happy?
Now, unable to walk or even stand on her own, her remaining years loom as ones of utter dependency. No more will she pick the leaves from her own grapevine to welcome the spring or the figs from her massive fig tree to see off the summer.
But we also greeted the news of another great-grandchild on the way and even as the sadness of all we’ve lost settles into the many cracks in its walls as surely as it does into our bones, still this house will ring with the voices of children going about the serious business of playing games.
Arab women have learned to roll with the punches as neatly as we roll with our fingers, and with all this behind us and so much ahead, we sang as we rolled and the morning turned to late afternoon.
We don't know how much longer this tradition will last in our family but the first vine leaves of the season were shared at my mother's house.
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